Written by Daniel Hazard
Building communication strategies
Media ministry in Nebraska reaches thousands
The imposing carillon tower of First-Plymouth UCC gives a distinctive look to the Lincoln, Neb., skyline. The church building, dedicated 75 years ago, houses the fourth-largest congregation in the UCC and features striking architectural elements. Inside, it also houses a state-of-the-art sound booth, television lighting and five digital television cameras. But you'd never know it.
"First-Plymouth is a beautiful, historic church," says Tammy Alvis, director of First-Plymouth's Media Ministry. Years ago, Alvis remembers when the local television station came in to broadcast Christmas services. The scaffolding, lights, cameras and their operators were an intrusive presence on the worship service. So, while Alvis believed the weekly radio and television broadcasts were an integral part of their church's ministry, continuing them would require ways to minimize detraction from the main message.
"We respect the worship service and we don't intrude," says Alvis. "The camera is our guest."
Over 20,000 people tune in weekly to First-Plymouth's Sunday morning radio broadcast on the local AM station, and the television broadcast, "Reach Out and Live," on three commercial television stations and a local access channel. But Alvis and her crew of volunteers are forging ahead. Keeping up with the ever-changing technology of the 21st century, Alvis was surprised when members of the congregation and viewers all over the state started asking her about podcasts.
"I was like, what's a podcast?" laughs Alvis.
Podcasts, a term inspired by Apple's "iPod" (a small, handheld device that plays digital sound files) and the word "broadcast," refers to sound files that can be published on the internet. Users can download the files onto their computer or their iPod or other MP3 player to listen to the program when they choose.
"I knew I had to do it," says Alvis, "when people asked me, 'When are you going to start podcasting so I can download the sermon and listen to it when I exercise?'"
Besides podcasts of the weekly sermons, First-Plymouth's website provides other timely information about the church, including its weekly e-newsletters and special events, printed sermons and even a page for online prayer requests.
Soon, users will be able to go online to give donations, using a credit card. Alvis is especially proud of the website, which gets roughly 10,000 hits from web users each month. "For me, one of the most important things is keeping the website as up-to-date as possible," explains Alvis. "If you don't keep it up to date, then it's like reading an old newspaper from a year ago. You wouldn't do that."
Alvis sees her work as a way to keep the UCC in the forefront of a technology-driven society. "It's another way to reach out to the community with the good news," she says, "an alternative to what some people might be hearing from other ministers. It gives the UCC a voice within the community."
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Bloggers share good thoughts, broaden church 'community'
BLOG: n : a shared on-line journal where people can post diary entries about their personal experiences and hobbies [syn: web log] Source: WordNet ® 2.0 © 2003 Princeton University
Somehow, the word "blog" snuck into our vernacular. The Rev. Katy Hawker, now a blogger herself and pastor of Evangelical UCC in Webster Groves, Mo., jokes, "I think the whole blog thing came when I was asleep!"
So what is a blog? Short for weblog, blogs are online journals, frequently updated, and are usually posted on the internet for public consumption. Now that most UCC churches use websites as a way to inform the general public of their presence and activities, blogs are gradually finding their niche on church websites as well - as a way to share ideas and, sometimes, to start conversations with the community.
Readers of the blog operated by Congregational UCC of Manhasset, N.Y. - CongoBlog, as it's called - can keep up with Associate Pastor Chase Peeples' avid reading and his love of discussing religion and politics.
The First Congregational UCC of Woodstock, Conn., features a blog on their website entitled, "Across Borders." In it, Debbie Pallatto-Fontaine, a commissioned minister for spiritual formation, recently contributed frequent entries from South Korea as her mission trip unfolded. Pallatto- Fontaine spent 3 months there on behalf of the Korean Partnership Committee of the UCC's Connecticut Conference.
"I got in the habit of starting that with something kind of devotional and then it just made sense to turn that into a blog so that people who are on the email list can get it directly, but people who aren't can get it from the website," says Hawker from her offi ce in suburban St. Louis.
Since Hawker enjoys writing devotionally, she uses her blog to reflect on current events. "I think if you're going to have a successful blog," says Hawker, "it has to be reflective of the person who's writing it."
Minister leads one of nation's oldest religious broadcasts
If he tries not to think about it too much, it doesn't unnerve the Rev. Peter Panagore that he has a congregation of 96,000. But unlike most pastors, Panagore's ministry rarely puts him face to face with any of his congregants.
His church, the First Radio Parish Church of America of Portland, Maine exists mainly on the television screen, broadcasting 2- minute "Daily Devotions" during the top-rated local morning news program in Maine at 6:12 in the morning, just before the weather.
First Radio Parish Church of America - don't let the name fool you, says Panagore. The non-profit organization started back in 1926 - predating television - is the oldest and longest continuously running non-sectarian broadcast in the U.S.
"It started on the radio, then went to television in 1954, uninterrupted. It's still on radio," says Panagore, "but our main thing has been television for quite some time."
Panagore, a UCC minister, is deeply aware of the legacy that preceded him. He is the fifth pastor ever to hold this post, replacing the Rev. David R. Glusker, a Methodist, in 2003, following Glusker's 18-year tenure as the voice of Daily Devotions.
"I think of [Daily Devotions] as brief stories of faith, hope and inspiration. They're not sermons," says Panagore, who good-humoredly refers to himself as a "reductionist" because of the mere 270-some words he's allowed in his two-minute spot. "They're generally narratives, and they can be on absolutely any subject whatsoever, provided they land on a thought for the day and a prayer."
Since his viewers aren't necessarily UCC, and don't necessarily belong to a faith community, Panagore's message attempts to bridge all faith communities, using everyday images, humor, and the notion of God's boundless love encapsulated in an uplifting message.
"We ask people to attend worship . to find a family of faith of some sort," he says.
"We reach out to everybody," says Panagore of his viewers. "Ironworkers, lawyers in downtown Portland, loggers in western Maine. It's the ski lift operator, waitresses, teachers ."
While Panagore estimates that the TV station donates approximately $800,000 per year in production costs and on-air time, the FRPCA's budget still relies heavily on donations from viewers and supporters. A steady stream of emails and letters of gratitude attest to the fact that Panagore's ministry is reaching viewers and touching hearts. "What we are," explains Panagore, "is a moderate voice of rational faith."
For interested persons, log on to the FRCPA website dailydevotions.org and sign up for a free subscription. Subscribers will receive a daily devotional in their in-box every day. Panagore encourages pastors to use the searchable database and use his devotionals as deemed fit, asking only to be cited as the source.
Donations may be made on the ministry's secure website: dailydevotions.org or by sending checks to The First Radio Parish Church of America, One Congress Square, Portland, ME 04101